487 U. S. 931
June 29, 1988
The Kozminski family ran a dairy farm, and they brought two mentally retarded people to work on it. The family made these two work extremely long hours seven days a week without pay, and used a variety of psychological manipulation techniques to keep them from leaving. The family was ultimately charged under two federal laws, which banned involuntary servitude, and conspiracy to practice involuntary servitude – obviously in reference to the Thirteenth Amendment. Jury instructions stated that involuntary servitude could be created exclusively through psychological coercion, as opposed to physical or legal coercion. The Kozminski family contended that this definition of involuntary servitude was far too broad.
The Court agreed in a 7-2 vote, but split 5-4 about the correct definition of involuntary servitude. O’Connor, writing for the majority, looked at various Thirteenth Amendment precedents, and concluded that only threats of legal or physical coercion could create the practice of involuntary servitude. The legislative history of various acts enacted on the basis of the Amendment also confirmed this more restrictive definition. O’Connor stressed that expanding the definition to include psychological manipulation would sweep too broadly, possibly making someone like a charismatic religious leader guilty under the statutes. She left it to the lower court to determine whether there was enough evidence in the record to convict the Kozminskis even under the narrower definition.
Brennan, joined by Marshall, agreed that the jury instructions swept too broadly, but felt O’Connor’s test was too narrow. His test was whether the means of coercion actually reduced someone to a slavelike state. Long hours, no pay, no days off, and squalid conditions added up to a slavelike condition, and that was what the Amendment and the enforcing statutes were meant to ban. Brennan noted that psychological coercion was very often far more effective than legal or physical coercion – the threat of having your house burned down is no less convincing than the threat of being beaten.
Stevens, joined by Blackmun, thought it unwise for the Court to attempt to formulate a precise definition. He trusted prosecutors, judges, and juries to intelligently apply, on a case by case basis, the broad Thirteenth Amendment terms of involuntary servitude. Based on the facts in the record, he thought the jury instructions were fine, and that a new trial was not warranted.
Here is another case where Brennan actually got the better of the more conservative Justices. While the majority was rightly concerned about limiting the legal reach of involuntary servitude, Brennan had exactly the right legal test to address those concerns. His points seem pretty well unanswerable, and I wish his opinion had been the majority one.